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Borderlands: Tigua Indians Survive 300 Years of Ordeals 17 (1998)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Tigua Indians Survive 300 Years of Ordeals

Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998.

By Lilian Ortiz with research contributed by Candy Ramirez, Kristina Diaz, Terri Castro, Luisa Valadez, and Misty Marquez

In 1998, the Tigua Indian Reservation is well known for its casino called Speaking Rock. El Pasoans and tourists fill the parking lots to gamble seven days a week. While they are there, many visit the Tigua Cultural Center and enjoy a meal at Wyngs, the Tigua restaurant.

However, this prosperity has been long in coming. The Tiguas were officially recognized as an American Indian tribe just 30 years ago in 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Public Law 90-287, even though the tribe had lived in the El Paso area since 1680.

""Image caption: Eagle dancer with symbol of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo stands across from Speaking Rock Casino. Photo by Monica Ortiz.

Before the Tiguas came to El Paso, they lived just south of Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the Tiwa Pueblo of Isleta. El Paso writer Randy Eickhoff says that the Tiwas can trace their culture back to about 1500 BC. The various Pueblo tribes interacted with one another, but they did not interfere in the affairs of other tribes.

When the Spanish arrived, the Isleta Pueblo provided food and shelter. But the Spaniards regarded the Pueblo Indians as heathen savages and forcibly imposed Christianity on them. Several decades of cruelty and persecution inflicted by the Spanish culminated in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

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In a surprise attack, the Pueblos forced the Spanish to retreat south. Accounts of what happened as the Spanish fled south differ. Some historians say that a number of Tiguas went willingly with the Spanish, while others, including descendants of the Tiguas living in Ysleta, contend that the Spanish took hostages as protection on their trip south.

After arriving near El Paso, the Spaniards settled the Tiguas (the Spanish spelling) at Santisimo Sacramento, now called Ysleta. In 1681, Spanish Governor Otermin led an unsuccessful attempt to recapture New Mexico, bringing more Tiguas with him to Ysleta. Their northern brethren looked upon the Tiguas as traitors and even opposed recognition as a separate tribe for the Tiguas in the 20th century.

The Spanish used Tigua labor to build what is the oldest mission in Texas today, originally known as La Misión de Corpus Christi de Ysleta del Sur to distinguish it from the northern Isleta pueblo.

In 1751, King Charles V of Spain recognized the Tiguas by granting them 36,000 acres of desert land. In 1854, Texas officially recognized this land grant, but the coming of the railroad made land more valuable. The Tiguas lost much land through various political machinations.

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In the 1950s, the city of El Paso annexed a large portion of the Lower Valley, including Ysleta. The Tiguas, already living in poverty, either had to pay enormous tax bills or lose even more of their land. In 1960s, Tom Diamond took on the case of the Tiguas and led a long legal fight that resulted in the state of Texas recognizing the Tiguas as a distinct tribe in 1967.

The Tiguas also lost many of their original ceremonies. In the 19th century, the Church outlawed the Tiguas' dances, seen as devil worship. Eickhoff says the Tiguas had to " accommodate the Catholic calendar" by changing some of their feast days to keep their dances alive.

For centuries, the Tiguas have celebrated their life through dancing. During all the dances the participants face north, south, east and west to honor all directions. The four colors most often worn during the dances are red, green, yellow, and black.

Visitors to the reservation are invited to observe "social dances" which various groups of Tigua youths perform. Examples of these include the Butterfly Dance held around Easter to give thanks to nature for its offerings; the Eagle dance which recognizes the sky's powers; the Round Dance celebrating friendship; and the Pueblo Two-Step which is a greeting of seasons and expresses hip for element balance. According to Eickhoff, many other dances, including the Turtle Dance designed "to seek eternal life," are performed privately in the underground kiva or tuh-la.


""Image caption: Visitors can see Tigua social dances performed at the Cultural Center by groups like this one.   Photo courtesy of Eve Torres.

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During the dances, several male Tiguas keep the beat with a drum and sing in their native tongue, Tiwa. One drum is of particular importance. Called the Sacred Drum, it came south with the Tiguas in 1680. Covered with buffalo skin, it is decorated with a moon with a face on one side and eight stars around it.

Known as Juan, or "Juanchido," it is the drum that has kept the Tiguas together for centuries. The drum is like an old wise man, knowing everything about the Tiguas. Believed to have a soul of its own, the drum provides spiritual advice to the Tiguas. It is fed corn, and the War Captain breathes life into the drum through a small hole.

Today, a controversy centers around Marty Silvas, former Tigua War Captain, and keeper of the sacred drum. He has concealed the drum from the rest of the tribe in a dispute over leadership.

The Tiguas have removed Silvas' name from the tribal roster and have banned him from the reservation. The Tigua Council is offering a $500,000 reward for return of the drum. On February 4, 1998, Marty Silvas was charged for theft of an artifact, but a resolution has not been reached.

Since the opening of Speaking Rock Casino in 1994, the Tiguas have made many improvements in their tribe. Unemployment is down to two percent. A new cultural center and medical clinic join two restaurants, a smoke shop, a print shop and six tourist-oriented businesses which have opened with the money the casino brings in.

On May 2, 1998, the Tiguas opened their newest enterprise: a gas station and convenience store called "Running Bear." Selling gasoline for 99 cents a gallon, the station is attracting Eastside motorists who have been paying several cents more per gallon. The Tiguas have purchased Big Bear Oil Company and say this will be the everyday price of gasoline.

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But another problem for the Tiguas looms over their recent prosperity: the question of blood quantum. In 1987, Congress passed a law limiting tribal membership only to those Indians whose blood level is 1/8 degree and higher. Tigua blood has been severely diluted by intermarrying with non-Indians over 300 years.

Already more than a third of the tribe's 1,500 members are at the minimum 1/8th level. A bill introduced in 1994 asking that the blood limitation be lowered never made it out of committee. The Tribal Council hopes to extend services to those who do not meet federal blood guidelines but show some blood link to the tribe.

After generations of hardship, only a few full-blooded Tiguas remain, but the tribe is financially sound. Young Tiguas are learning their own language in elementary school. Traditional tribal arts, cooking and dancing are kept alive at the cultural center on the reservation. Tribal programs now exist to aid in buying or fixing a home and going to college.

Today, the Tigua tribe is the subject of interest of historians, ethnologists and other researchers. But the Indians have not forgotten that they were separated from their original tribe, forced to embrace a foreign religion and way of life and to work and protect their Spanish oppressors. And so they chose not to participate in El Paso's Quadricentennial celebration this year.

The Tiguas have much to celebrate, however, not the least being their tenacity and will to survive. Thirty years after their official recognition, they also are doing a pretty good job at achieving prosperity and generating a great deal of interests in El Paso, the missions and their unique tribe.

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Tigua Sources

EPCC Web site || EPCC Libraries Web Site || EPCC Library Catalog
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